Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein

Photos by Maria Stenzel

Curator Vanja Malloy gives a guided tour of the “Dimensionism” show

Curator Vanja Malloy gives a guided tour of the “Dimensionism” show for the students of Natasha Staller’s class “The Modern World” (cross-listed under art and the history of art; European studies; and sexuality, women’s and gender studies).

On the left: An example of “planar poetry” by Charles Sirató; on the right: Construction (1928-1935). Frederick Kann

Left: An example of “planar poetry” by Charles Sirató, the poet who wrote the Dimensionist manifesto. Borrowing imagery from geometry, billboards, electric signage and directional arrows, Sirato wanted to add planes to his work and bash the tyranny of the traditional line. Here he visualizes one life path ending at “the morgue” and another leading to “compromise.”

Right: Construction (1928-1935). Frederick Kann was the fourth signer of the manifesto, and here he conjoins three painted wood planes upon a single point. Kann’s use of planar and spatial divisions, said Sirató, “represented the Dimensionist spirit.”

On the left: Colonne (1932) by Anton Prinner; on the right: Rhythm San Fin (1934)by Robert Delaunay

Left: Colonne (1932). This bronze polychrome sculpture (of a column) is the work of Anton Prinner, a Hungarian painter, engraver and sculptor. Colonne plays with the concept of dimensional expansion by forging the notion of fragmented space with its vibrant, irregular and angular sides. Prinner was friends with Sirató and Picasso, who called him “the small man who makes large statues.”

Right: Rhythm San Fin (1934). Robert Delaunay and his wife, the artist Sonia Delaunay, were inspired by the invisible spectrum of electromagnetic waves. Robert Delaunay here represents that spectrum in gouache on canvas. “A New Reality [that] imposes itself outside all known Realisms,” as he wrote. “Electric light as rhythm. Rhythm as subject.”

Sketch for Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1937) by Alexander Calder

Sketch for Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1937). After viewing the 1925 solar eclipse—from the campus of Columbia University—Alexander Calder was later moved to add actual movement to his art, once photos of the eclipse proved that stars are not static but kinetic. Note the Roxbury, Conn., place stamp, where other émigré Dimensionist artists congregated too.

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Study for Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1937–38). Calder was influenced by the biomorphic forms of Joan Miró and the choreography of Martha Graham. To make his sculptural mobiles move, early on, he generated them with small motors. Later he strung his mobiles, minus the motors, so that air currents supplied random motion. This study is built of painted sheet iron and wire: the finishedLobster Trap and Fish Tail, at MoMA, spans more than 9 feet. This video’s accompanying music is by Luis Alvaz (Wikimedia Commons).

Capricious Forms (1937). Wassily Kandinsky

Capricious Forms (1937). Wassily Kandinsky was held rapt by the microscopic view; many artists tied to the creation of the Dimensionist manifesto were influenced by ever-more-detailed microscopic and telescopic images, becoming available through photography. Kandinsky’s curvilinear, biomorphic shapes here seem to signify the cellular structures and amorphous forms of single-cell organisms.

Abstract Construction (1930), by Cesar Domela

Abstract Construction (1930), by Cesar Domela. Robert Delaunay introduced Sirató to the Dutch artist César Domela, whose art would later include silkscreen and typography. Here, Domela uses steel, brass and protruding spheres of glass to birth three dimensions from two. 

Lunar Infant (1944), by Isamu Noguchi

Lunar Infant (1944), by Isamu Noguchi. One goal of Dimensionism was “the vaporization of sculpture,” such that the human being doesn’t so much view art’s exterior but becomes its interior. That idea was hard to pull off, in a practical sense. But Noguchi’s floating sculpture, made of magnesite, wood and electric components, tries nobly.

Self Portrait (1944). Helen Lundeberg

Self Portrait (1944). Helen Lundeberg. This California painter (with her husband Lorser Feitelson) founded “Post-Surrealism,” the first spoke of Surrealism to reach into the States. She was drawn to Dimensionist subject matter but, in the Depression, the WPA employed her to paint murals of California history. In this work, she plays with several visual levels, holding a three-dimensional sphere that she’s painting in two-dimensional canvas. Note the shadow that eclipses her face.

Left: Microcosm and Macrocosm (1937). Helen Lundeberg; Right: Mirr (1936, base 1960), by Jean Arp. Sirató

Left: Microcosm and Macrocosm (1937). Helen Lundeberg took biology courses at Pasadena Junior College, learning to draw the cellular and embryonic forms she’d observed with a microscope. Here, she paints shapes that could either be microbic or cosmic. Fun fact: The American band Sonic Youth wrote a song called “Helen Lundeberg.” Its lyrics list the titles of Lundeberg’s paintings.

Right: Mirr (1936, base 1960), by Jean Arp. Sirató called Arp a “pioneer warrior” of the manifesto: it was Arp who most spearheaded getting more artists on the list. This German-French artist wanted to create biomorphic forms that were indicative of nature, but not directly representational. As he wrote: “The essence of a sculpture must enter on tip-toe, as light as animal footprints on snow.”

Untitled (1945), by Adeline Kent.

Untitled (1945), by Adeline Kent. “Modern art is the expression of OUR time, wrote this California artist. “It differs from earlier art because of new knowledge.” In Kent’s library were books on ideas related to Dimensionism, including those by the Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky, who believed in four-dimensional “cosmic consciousness.” Kent was the daughter of a women’s rights advocate and a congressman. This abstract drawing consists of pigment and carving in Hydrocal casting plaster.

On the left: Nuclear II (1946) by László Moholy-Nagy; on the right: Les Cosmogones (1944), by Wolfgang Paalen.

Left: Nuclear II (1946). Soon after World War II, the artist László Moholy-Nagy read Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, a report on the development of the atomic bomb. At the time, atomic power had an ambiguous reputation. This work carries no imagery of the decimated cities of Hiroshima or Nagasaki—and atomic energy held vital personal meaning for the artist. When Moholy-Nagy painted this complex and brightly colored sphere, he was in a hopeful place, as radiation treatments had put his cancer in remission.  

Right: Les Cosmogones (1944), by Wolfgang Paalen. This Austrian-born artist was captivated by quantum theory. While Einstein’s theory of relativity posed the concept of universal order, quantum theory took the reverse stance, introducing the importance of uncertainty at the tiniest levels in science, sub-atomic particles and forces, as per Warner Heisenberg’s 1927 Uncertainty Principle, from which this huge, immersive oil painting gets its inspiration. By the way, “cosmogones” seems like a familiar word, but the artist made it up.  

Vanja Malloy continues her tour for the students of “The Modern World” class.

Vanja Malloy continues her tour for the students of “The Modern World” class. At far left, you can see a blow-up of the Dimensionist manifesto.